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Allison Warner counted the rings as she waited for her sister to pick up the phone. After the fourth, she heard the all too familiar click of her call going through to voice mailagain. Bethany's voice came across the line, advising Allison to leave a message.
Allison sighed, giving in to the disappointment that had shadowed her since she'd moved back to Arizona five months ago. She'd talked to Bethany's voice mail more than she'd talked to her sister, and she didn't know which frustrated her morethe message Bethany would likely ignore or the caller ID that enabled Bethany to ignore her call in the first place. Still, she took a deep breath and forced a bright note into her voice.
"Hi, Bethany. It's Allisonyour sister," she teased even though the words really weren't funny. "It's Thursday afternoon, and I'm getting ready to leave work. I was calling to see if you wanted to go out for dinner tonight or maybe shopping this weekend. We could look for baby furniture or decorations for the nursery. I'm free all weekend if you feel up to hitting the mall. Or we could look online if you're not up to going out. So, you know, just call me."
Allison cringed as she hung up the phone. Could she have sounded any more desperate? And hadn't she learned by now, the harder she tried, the more Bethany resisted?
You have to be patient. The break in their relationship hadn't happened overnight. Allison would be foolish to hope she could repair the damage in a snap. It's going to take time.
Fortunately, that was one thing Allison had plenty of on her hands. After shutting down her computer, she took a moment to straighten the few personal items on her desk. The misshapen coffee mug she'd thrown in pottery class; the wilting African violet; the handcrafted picture frame that rained tiny glass beads any time she picked it up. She and her sister smiled out from the photograph, heads tilted together in perfect symmetry. A single, perfect moment caught in time
If only life had that kind of pause button, to freeze a moment she wanted to last or better yet, a rewind button, so she could go back in time, and undo her poor choices.
The picture had been taken at Bethany's wedding when the two sisters were as close as could be. Bittersweet memories of the ceremony and the last time her family had been together flashed through Allison's mind. Bethany had smiled with tears in her eyes as their father walked her down the aisle and handed her to Gage Armstrong. Allison had stood at her sister's side, her maid of honor and best friend.
Only a few weeks later, Allison had followed her boyfriend, Kevin Hodges, to New York. That had been three years ago, and three years was a long time. Long enough for their father's health to fail, for Bethany's marriage to fall apart and for Allison to get so wrapped up in her career that she'd been oblivious to both. She had moved back home, but the three thousand mile gap had been much easier to close than the emotional distance between Allison and her sister. Especially when Bethany had made her opinion so clear.
Too little, too late.
Guilt pressed against Allison's chest, the truth in her sister's words weighing so heavily it hurt to breathe. She'd give anything, anything to turn back the clock and to be with her family when they'd needed her most. But that time was gone, and the only thing that kept Allison going was her determination to make the most of now.
"You have to get Bethany to open up and talk about what went wrong with her and Gage," their mother had insisted before she left on her three-week Mexican cruise. The trip was one Allison's parents had long planned to make for their thirty-fifth anniversary. When her father passed away six months before the anniversary date, Allison's mother decided to take the trip anyway as a tribute to his memory.
She missed her father so much. His laughter, his love, his encouragement to always aim high and shoot for the stars. How he would hate that his death had driven a wedge between his daughters. His girls, as he'd fondly referred to Bethany, Allison, and their mother. It would have broken his heart. And though Bethany refused to believe it, the loss of their once-close relationship broke Allison's heart, too.
Setting the picture frame back on her desk, she sighed. She couldn't change the past, but she was determined to do whatever it took to rebuild her relationship with her sister. Right now, Bethany needed family around her more than ever, whether she'd admit it or not.
At five-thirty, the offices of Knox Security were mostly empty, and she took a moment to walk down the hall and turn off the lights. She could have left a half an hour ago, but she'd wanted to finish up some filing for what would be the last full week of her temporary assignment at the security-systems firm.
On Monday, Martha Scanlon would be back after a two-month absence for hip replacement surgery. Allison would return for a day or two to catch the woman up on everything that had been started during her sick leave. After that, she would move on to another temporary assignment.
The receptionist job at Knox Security had been her longest to date. Normally, she filled in for only a week or two, subbing for vacationing employees or emergency situations. She liked the variety of working as a temp, liked the short-term nature of the jobs. The Monday through Friday, eight-to-five schedule was a world away from the sixty-hour-a-week grind she'd gotten used to working for Marton/Mills, an advertising firm in New York City. There was no chance of getting caught up in climbing the corporate ladder, on focusing so much on professional goals that personal relationships were pushed aside.
The glow of a glorious sunset shone outside the office window, signaling the end of another gorgeous spring day. One more reason to enjoy working in her hometown. The April weather was beautiful, sunny and warm and perfect for shorts and T-shirts. Business casual wasn't that casual even in Phoenix, and though Allison had left her razor-cut suits behind in New York, she did her best to dress appropriately while still being herself.
If you want to get ahead, you 're going to have to learn to dress the part.
The echo of her ex-boyfriend's words still burned as did the memory of how she'd so eagerly buried every bit of her own personality to force herself into a corporate mold. She'd tried so hard to be the perfect girlfriend, the perfect rising star employee. Kevin had been the chosen one, the young graduate whose father was good friends with the CEO at Barton/ Mills. She'd tagged along as little more than a "plus one" on Kevin's job offer, determined to be so much more. Starting at the bottom, she'd expected to pay the professional price of hard work and long hours, but she never imagined the personal costs.
Never again would she lose herself in a job or in a man, and her choice of wardrobe was a daily reminder.
Today, she'd worn a pin-striped black skirt and black knit mock turtlenecka perfectly respectable combination, but one kept from being too boring by the barely-there pink lace at the hem of the skirt. It was a recent purchase, and one she'd been eager to wear that day. Not that she had any particular reason to choose an outfit that did the most to compliment her short blond hair and green eyes. No reason at all.
Her steps gradually slowed and her pulse quickened as she neared Zach Wilder's office. After two months, she should have been used to the sight of his dark hair, vibrant blue eyes and chiseled features. Even his broad shoulders, narrow waist and lean, muscular limbs should have been commonplace by now. Still, there was something about the company's lead salesman that stole her breath every single time their paths crossed. That Zach was as wrong for her as a man could be did nothing to cool the attraction.
The old saying was trueyou never have a second chance to make a first impression, and Allison's first impression of Zach had been one of possibility. They'd met briefly her first day at Knox with an incidental touch in the elevator that had rocked her to the soles of her stylish pumps. Weeks later, she felt like she was still reeling. As if that momentary encounter had done more than set her back on her heels, as if it had somehow thrown her off her emotional axis, threatening to send her life spinning in a different direction.
It was crazy to put so much importance on a mundane event, but Allison knew she hadn't imagined the moment. Nor had she imagined the spark of attraction or the answering awareness burning in Zach Wilder's blue eyes. Their first meeting still teased her thoughts with only the slightest provocation. Just the sound of his deep voice sent the memory shivering down her spine. But it was everything that happened after that meeting Allison forced herself to remember.
As in his reputation of business firstperiod. As in Zach keeping such a tight and narrow focus on work that she never again crossed into his line of sight.
Too bad Allison hadn't had as easy a time ignoring Zach. Each time she walked by his office, she couldn't resist sneaking a peek inside. She'd made a study of the way his blue eyes narrowed when he stared at the computer screen. The way his jaw clenched when something went wrong and the way the corner of his mouth kicked into a half smile when things went right.
But what she noticed most were the rare moments when sheer exhaustion hit. When Zach would rub eyes aching from the strain of staring at the computer and roll his head back on his shoulders, no doubt trying to dislodge the burden of constantly trying to succeed.
In those brief periods of time, Allison felt she was seeing the real Zach Wilder. He seemed human. Vulnerable.
Fortunately, that didn't happen often or last more than a split second before Zach immediately snapped back into business mode, seeming determined to wipe out any hint of weakness.
But like the bad habit it was, Allison glanced inside the narrow glass window alongside the door. His chair was pushed back from his desk as if awaiting his return, but the room was empty. She was a little surprised. From the moment she started at Knox, she'd heard all about the long hours he worked, the impossible accounts he won, the fast track he was taking at breakneck speed. Each word shot off a warning flare in Allison, illuminating the danger of a man who was driven, ambitious and willing to succeed at all costs. But along with every accomplishment, Allison heard the undeniable respect and admiration of his fellow employees for a man who'd worked his way up through the ranks to earn the position he held.
That alone was a world away from the friend-of-the-family connections Kevin had used for a significant leg up on the ladder of success.
But despite their differences, Zach still shared enough similarities with her ex-boyfriend to send Allison running even if he was so gorgeous she couldn't resist taking a look back.
Good thing she only had a few days left at Knox. She'd move on to the next job and leave all thoughts of Zach behind. She ran a finger across the brass placard, tracing his name, until she realized what she was doing and snatched her hand back. She hurried down the hall, embarrassed and relieved no one had had seen her mooning over Zach Wilder's door.
Tuesday could not come soon enough, she thought as she stepped inside the waiting elevator and hit the button for the garage.
The doors had nearly closed when a masculine hand reached inside. One glance at the long, lean fingers, starched white cuff and designer watch, and a small shiver rippled from head to toe. She recognized that watch. She'd picked it out herself, on instructions from her boss, as a gift to the salesman of the year five years running.
Allison braced for what she already knew was coming, but try as she might, she couldn't keep her breath from catching when the silvered doors opened like an unveiling of female fantasies come to life and Zach Wilder stepped inside the elevator.
Five o'clock shadow darkened his jaw, matching the hint of circles beneath his eyes. A lock of dark hair fell across his forehead, and his red and black geometric tie was off-kilter.
"Zach, is everything all right?" She'd never seen him look so disheveled. He lookedhe looked like she pictured he would after being kissed. Because what woman could resist running her hands through his dark hair? Or using his always perfectly knotted tie to pull him closer? And wouldn't she love to put that hint of desperation in his blue eyes?
Allison's face heated at the foolish direction of her own thoughts. Like Zach would ever make out with someone at work! She knew better than that. Just like she knew better than to even entertain such a fantasy when he was standing so close. She twisted her fingers together as if she might grab hold of the thoughts running loose inside her mind. The last thing she needed was for all-business Zach to guess she had such an unprofessional crush on him.
His blue eyes drilled into hers as the elevator doors slid closed behind him. Slightly out of breath from running to catch the elevator, he confessed, "I was afraid I was going to miss you."